It's already in the fridge (28/6/2004)

The following letters are responses to Michael Meacher's piece 'GM food is heading for your fridge' in The Guardian on Friday. http://www.lobbywatch.org/archive2.asp?arcid=3922

Two of the three are from the usual suspects. The first is from Sir Colin Berry on behalf of the Scientific Alliance, a corporate-friendly front group forwarding its own extreme agenda with the help of PR firm Foresight Communications.

The second is from Tony Combes of the UK's Agricultural Biotechnology Council. Most readers will probably not be aware that Mr Combes also works for Monsanto who along with Bayer, BASF, Dow, Dupont and Syngenta set up this UK lobby group which operates with the help of PR firm Lexington Communications. http://www.lobbywatch.org/profile1.asp?PrId=138&page=A

Sir Colin Berry while complaining of "unproven claims" trots out the usual litany of inaccuraies about Pusztai's experiments and then goes on to speak of GM foods being approved "after rigorous testing over many years", laiming "after many years, we have no evidence of harmful effects from genetically modified foods on human health."

Yet a study by Professor Ian Pryme and Rolf Lembcke published in the journal Nutrition and Health (2003) shows there have only been ten published studies of the health effects of GM food or feed, over half of which were undertaken in collaboration with the biotech industry, and while these found no negative effects, several other independent studies found potentially negative effects which have not been explained.

Does this meagre preliminary evidence really constitute something Sir Colin regards as rigorous testing over many years? Or has he just accepted that claim on good faith from his pals in the Sci Alli?

Interestingly, in this context, Sir Colin has recently given an interview - 'More sorry than safe' - to (predictably!) Spiked-online, in which he attacks the preautionary principle. One of his illustrations of its supposed dangers is quite revealing:

"he argues that precautionary measures, without the backing of evidence and data, are not always the solution. He cites the controversial issue of SIDS - Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, aka cot death - about which parents are given lots of often contradictory advice. Berry says that in the 1980s, the favoured precautionary measure to guard against the possibility of your baby falling victim to SIDS was to lay her on her side or front. 'We tended to consider babies and young infants as being rather like the unconscious patient... It seemed like a reasonable, precautionary measure to take. Now we know that, in fact, it cost lives.'

"Berry says that subsequent observations made in Australia and New Zealand, and a case-controlled study in Britain in the 1990s, showed that reversing this policy and putting babies to sleep on their backs instead reduced the death rate from SIDS. In the UK, it fell from about 1,300 to 1,400 a year to about 300 to 400, he says."

Berry concludes from this, "a great many precious baby lives were lost because of what seemed like a reasonable precaution. It was one of those things that just happened to be wrong. This shows that we need data - that being precautionary, taking safety measures without testing the evidence, is not enough." http://www.spiked-online.com/articles/0000000CA592.htm

But Sir Colin's example undermines his case. What he presents as an illustration of precaution was not, in fact, an inhibition of a novel change but a novel intervention by which medical scientists persuaded parents to change their normal practice with babies and place them to sleep in positions different from the one that was most customary. As Sir Colin says, there were no data to support this intervention and it proved, by the time the evidence was in, to have been tragically ill-judged.

In the case of GM foods we're dealing with a precisely similar situation - a radical intervention which involves the transformation of the molecular basis of the world's existing food supply. And once again, in Sir Colin's words, we need data - we need to test the evidence for this being an effective and non-harmful intervention before accepting such a radical change.

In his letter to The Guardian Berry concludes, "If scientific evidence cannot be accepted as good grounds for decision-making, what can?" The question for Sir Colin is: where is that evidence and why is he so desperate to bury the evidence he finds inconvenient?

It's already in the fridge
The Guardian, Letters, Monday June 28, 2004

The unproven claims made regarding the safety of GM food (GM food is heading for your fridge, June 25) are in danger of misinforming the public and creating unnecessary panic. For example, the cited experiment of Dr Pusztai has been widely and rightly discredited. Its dubious and ambiguous conclusions were far more likely to be due to many other factors, which were not taken account of, such as the severe shortage of protein in the diets of the tested rats. The plain truth is that, after many years, we have no evidence of harmful effects from genetically modified foods on human health.

The BMA has clearly stated "there is very little potential for GM foods to cause harmful health effects". The decision to permit imports of GM animal feed by the EU is after rigorous testing over many years. If scientific evidence cannot be accepted as good grounds for decision-making, what can?
Prof Colin Berry Scientific Alliance

Most of Michael Meacher's comments misrepresent the science that many of the studies he refers to are based upon. He says "that a study of feeding GM Chardon LL maize feed to cows at Reading University two years ago has never been published probably because the results were so unpalatable to the biotech industry". In fact, the study is currently being peer-reviewed, ready for publication in a scientific journal. At the GM debate at the Natural History Museum in March, the author of the study, Dr Richard Phipps, who addressed the meeting from the floor, outlined the key findings. Hardly the actions of an independent scientist whose study has been buried.

Allergenicity and toxicity are fully taken into account at the very earliest stages of development, with strict guidelines enforced through UN agencies such as the WHO and intergovernmental regulatory bodies. The reason more farmers grow and more consumers eat GM crops and food is because they are so rigorously tested - more so than conventional or organic foods - and are the most extensively regulated agricultural-based fully labelled products in the EU. Besides, they are not new and have been in our fridges since 1997.
Tony Combes UK Agricultural Biotechnology Council

The obvious way to hit back at the arrogance of Syngenta and Monsanto, whose applications for the approval of GM animal feed are reaching their final stages in Brussels, is for the public to stop

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